Perhaps an odd way to describe my job is that I tell stories for a living. I will come in, write up a narrative and go to a town council meeting, then do it all again the next day.
I myself have been guilty of saying this, though. Maybe I have said it sort of jokingly or out of some fear of going down a rabbit hole of detail. While I can be the quiet one in the group, I do love talking about what I've seen and done as a small-town journalist.
What I write about tends to be secondhand. I may be at the scene of a house fire or car accident, but I will still get my information from those with firsthand knowledge. I will have interviews, ask questions and get clarifications. Being compulsive works out.
But is reporting all there is to it? I would say there is much more to it all. I am also an active community member; and this underlies our commitment as a local newspaper.
In his book "The Storytelling Animal" (one which I have read for one of my graduate courses), literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall argues that stories have been coping mechanisms which allow us (kids and adults alike) to escape to Neverland. Stories have functioned as evolutionary simulations to help us navigate our turbulent world.
"Stories give us pleasure and instruction," he says. "They simulate worlds so we can live better in this one. They help bind us into communities and define us as cultures."
Gottschall adds that stories surround us. They don't just drive novels, but are crafted in conspiracy theories, video games and "reality" TV. Some may be more "truthy" than true. Like our lives, stories can become muddled. Regardless, we all want resolution.
Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. The Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote more than 2,300 years ago in his "Poetics" that tragic stories can instill pity, fear and catharsis. We empathize with characters and their struggles, but can return unscathed.
So, is there some link between storytelling as an art and what I do as a local reporter? Generally, I would say that I just do it. I go to that meeting or event. I then will parse down what happened. Our articles online and in the actual paper are the end result.
Besides an effort to be there, though, I think a few essential elements are needed here.
Being much more experienced in this business than I, journalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel have described journalism as "storytelling with a purpose." A "good" story in our work is one that is not just credible, but which resonates somehow with readers.
We need to develop and maintain trust. Ultimately, that trust comes from our readers, from our community leaders and from our emergency responders. The commitment to being there and getting it right follows. This can be a challenge at times, but the people make it work. As I've said before, it's about fostering positive relationships among us.
I — we — have a responsibility to uphold them. I am a storyteller of sorts, but I can't do it all in a bubble. Each of us has a stake in our stories, because they impact all of us.